Heartbreak. Disappointment. Broken promises. Fallen dignities…. just a few words to sum up this year in review. Whatever optimism we once had going into this year slowly diminished following suits of sexual harassment, a false Best Picture announcement, take-a-knee protests, hurricanes, an opioid epidemic, and a total solar eclipse, all in a span of 12 months. But like I’ve said for a while, it’s only going to get worse before it gets better. The good thing is: we have nowhere else to go but up. Here are the best albums we have to associate this year with of fond memories:
10. Pallbearer – Heartless
I’m not one to say doom metal made a comeback in 2017 (unlike shoegaze, which made a huge splash), but Pallbearer’s Heartless that came out earlier this year was indicative of the times ahead. What was once characterized as “doom” metal turned out to be the best metal LP of the year, if not the best rock album of the year. It may not have been the most “popular,” but it’s the clearest example of how this year truly felt.
With Pink Floyd-like instrumentation and Sabbath-like vocals, Pallbearer was able to borrow vocabulary from their influences and make a sound all their own. And at the center of this record is what they do best – harmonizing. Their previous two LPs demonstrated their knack of keeping the sludge of doom metal a bit more interesting than usual, using the genre as a sound to characterize a struggle of disappointment and heartbreak, what’s lost in the pursuit of a better life, a feeling akin to moving mountains. It’s funny the album is titled Heartless, because this record is everything but. We’ve heard this type of metal before, but no year this past decade has felt like moving mountains quite like 2017 has.
9. Arcade Fire – Everything Now
Arcade Fire’s always had a knack for taking sounds of the past and making something of their own through vast instrumentation. On the ABBA-sounding album Everything Now, they’ve used the same experimentation of instruments as they have on all their records, but where as The Suburbs was about making a habitat and communal living space out of your home, Everything Now is about taking control of your life. Yes, we can go into the fake ad campaign and the album roll out, but that’s besides the point, because this album’s about taking matters into your own hands, deciding for yourself. This album was initially panned upon its release, but the truth is I’ve never had a more fun time listening to an Arcade Fire record, one that’s already accompanied me with memories which I associate the album with, just like I have with every other Arcade Fire record.
It may not be their “best” record, but it’s definitely a mark of their territory, one that’s more circulatory and ingenuous in its own right, each song imbued with its own identity and simplicity.
8. Thundercat – Drunk
A frequent collaborator touchstone, Thundercat has left his mark across the board in terms of genre, from Kendrick to Flying Lotus to Kamasi Washington, even working with the Doobie Brothers. Which comes to no surprise when he debuted his sprawling Drunk earlier this year, an epic poem about an inebriated night out.
There’s something about Drunk that feels like a soap opera – embellished experiences, exaggerated feelings, and an aura of frenetic energy. Thundercat seamlessly molds genres from electronica, to funk, to psychedelic, to jazz, a salad of all sorts but peppers it in a way that it doesn’t feel muddy. It actually gives off a circulatory feel to it, the type of phenomenon where you can drop yourself anywhere in the album and listen all the way through to the point where you started, and still feel like you listened to it in the proper order, because really, there is no proper order to the record, but more like a frenzied recollection of the previous night.
7. King Krule – The Ooz
What else is there to say about The Ooz? Well, there’s many things left to be said, because the way the record is packaged is to reward listeners on multiple listens. King Krule sees instruments not as guidelines or necessities, but as tool kits, different musical muscles for different sounds.
Like an alien visiting Earth for the first time from above, the album intakes all the information at once, resulting in a heterogeneous mix of cultures that makes it difficult to distinguish from each other. How would aliens view Earth? Would they think it’s dirty? Ugly? Diabolic? On its way to ruin?
It’s a journey to get lost in and a puzzle you can never really solve, an album that’s schizophrenic in the best way possible, to the point you forget you’re even listening to a record. It practically flips the brain switch off for you.
6. Björk – Utopia
“If optimism ever was like an emergency, it’s now,” Björk pleaded in a recent interview with the New York Times. However, “optimism” might not be the exact word to sum up her new record, but in this case, she means it as a heightened state of enlightenment, a world where all positives and no negatives intersect. But I’d say a different word to describe it the record: sex. Sex noises all around, from the opening fireworks of “Arisen My Senses,” which contains several melodies laid over top each other, to the closing woodwind notes on “Saint,” there is no real anchor to this record. Even if its melodies are brought back down to Earth by Arca’s beats, they’re immediately tossed up into the air again.
Which makes it hard to find a footing in this record, but that’s how Björk perceives love, sex and intimacy: it’s not a process of dominance or demonstration of authority and masculinity, it’s something you fumble through with your partner, an experience you discover for yourselves, a moment shared with each other. I think that’s what Björk was getting at with this album, a reminder that another half makes us whole.
5. Nine Inch Nails – Not The Actual Events/Add Violence
It’s funny how now in 2017, ten years after arguably their last best record Year Zero, Nine Inch Nails pretty much predicted of what the world would come to: theories of how the world would end, mass hysteria, corrupted authorities… come to think of it, 2017 sounds just like one long NIN record, each phase being released at the beginning, middle, and end of the year.
Not The Actual Events is definitely the heavier record, but overall less political, starting out with “Branches/Bones” and eventually ripping into “The Idea of You,” which starts with a sampled guitar riff used as a back bone for the 6/4 beat, which then transitions into 4/4, leading into the guitar and drums trading fours with each other. What results sounds like a failure of communication, the drums and electronics losing all contact with the guitar, and with songs like “Burning Bright (Field on Fire),” the EP only builds onto that concept. Both records are great concept records in their own right, but they both share an emptiness with each other, a slow degrading of the world and society as we know it.
Add Violence further elevates that vision, with its centerpiece being “The Lovers,” a song in which each track and layer has a subtle anxiety to it, created through experimentation of non-traditional musical instruments in which they crafted melodies and loops through “accidental” methods. Add Violence ends with a three chord vamp on an endless loop that slowly diminishes in quality on “The Background World,” just as a looped distress call would, dissolving into static and data before fading out.
4. Lorde – Melodrama
The term “melodrama” is an exaggeration. “Stop being so melodramatic,” people commonly say. However, whatever situation we’re in, it’s hard to see it any other way.
When you’re in your early 20s, life can feel kind of heavy – Will this last forever? Is this the end? How will I possibly come back from this? From the outside looking in, it seems hysterical. But from the inside out, it feels like the end of the world.
Like a period of depression, loss, or denial, Lorde’s Melodrama comes in phases – regret, angst, retribution – you feel like taking on the world and burning bridges. You feel inclined to do something. And that’s how a Melodrama begins, with “Green Light,” an oath to get revenge, to songs like “Sober” and “Perfect Places,” depicting a constant dig for that stimulation that once gave us adrenaline, but to which we are now numb to.
It’s an album about growing up, getting us to think for ourselves. But also, it’s the sound of our future. It’s about our inability to not be self-conscious, a complete lack of inhibition just for the moment, but also an admittance that we will never truly find our perfect place, no matter after however many drunk 2 AM bedroom talks we sit through, with nothing but a four-on-the-floor kick drum to carry us through the night, only to wake up the next morning in someone else’s bedroom.
3. Fleet Foxes – Crack Up
Five and a half years have passed since the release of their last record Helplessness Blues, and yet, it still feels like Robin Pecknold is trying to figure out how this whole “life” thing works, as we all are. Having gone to university during the band’s break, it probably only confused him even more, introducing another round of complexities to mess with his psyche.
However, the Fleet Foxes only returned stronger, and never could they have come at a better time. In a year full of dichotomy and polarization, they introduced their most complex record yet, one that again represents a stoned stream of consciousness where one song ties into the next, unsure of what song starts when.
But above the psychedelia and circulatory motion of the record, it’s very much an album about the sign of the times (“I can hear you loud in the center/Aren’t we all made to be crowded together?/Like leaves.”) Unlike the record’s unofficial counterpart, Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy, which sounds like a professor lecturing you and telling you the answers, this album is all about self-trust, an inner belief and karma system that we cling onto to assure ourselves that we will get to the end of this, that everything will be fine. We will be fine. Because at the end of the day, our confidence is all that we have to retreat to.
But above all that, it’s a record that sounds just as perfect listen after listen after listen, be it on your record player, in the forest, on a mountain top, next to the ocean, it’s one that brings about a deep state of human enlightenment.
2. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
When I was in astrobiology class in college, there was a concept we discussed called the anthropic principal, which is a phenomenon that at first is hard to wrap your head around: humans are who we are on Earth because we don’t know it any other way – “Isn’t it interesting that the Earth is positioned just the right distance form the sun but not too far?” “Isn’t it amazing how our eyes can see in the very small window of the visible wavelength spectrum?” “Isn’t it incredible that we have all this oxygen on Earth to survive?” The truth is, we don’t know life any other way outside of how we see it and how we know it, because it led to who humans are today.
Which kind of rings true in Kendick’s DAMN, perhaps the most complex concept album to come out this year, filled with dual meanings and polarized start and end points. It’s a certain album played in one direction and a different album played in the other, all disguised as a rap record.
It’s an album that plays with fate, of how our lives could have turned out, progressing through not so much stages in our lives (i.e. PRIDE, HUMBLE, FEAR), but builds itself through the psychological layers we gradually acquire throughout our lives, the burdens that we carry, the second guesses we make.
Yes, the album can be played in two different directions, and I’m sure they both sound just as unique in different ways. But the truth is there’s a thousand different versions of this record built inside of it, each one just as subjective, requiring to meet it halfway with your own personal history. How different could our lives have played out? Would we have necessarily been better people in another life? Would we have made the same mistakes?
It’s an album that can be picked apart and analyzed through and through. But above all, it’s a phenomenal rap record, one that hits each emotional beat and progresses with one great song after the next.
1. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
I’m sure I’m not the first one to admit that I felt a lot of trepidation leading up to the release of the new LCD record, because, emotionally, it was a lot to gamble on. “How would they pull this off?” ”What if it’s a disappointment?” All of the logical questions following a band’s hiatus ran through my mind.
And yet, Murphy cleared everything up with one statement: “LCD was never supposed to be the best thing. It was supposed to be my thing.” And when one acknowledges that about LCD, they can adapt to whatever they need to – LCD was never a band about trying to out do themselves. It was always about having fun, putting off having to answer to anyone but yourself.
All of this, only to return with their highest concept record yet – an album that feels like a dream in and of itself, a refusal to wake up and acknowledge the world around you, including songs about living through nightmares and how one sleeps.
There was a lot of backlash when the album title and artwork was announced, a bold move that at once felt like a mistake, only to turn out as the most apt and appropriate title and cover art for the record, reminding us that the American Dream is a fallacy: a state of mind and solitude that can never be achieved, a false sense of the future.
It’s the perfect anti-thesis to 2017, an ignorance of the world around us, the imaginary yet all too real bubble that we choose to live in, a warning and wake up call that we’re all scared to acknowledge. 2017 has felt like a nightmare and a dreamscape that we’re reluctant to move on from. What was once fear is now actuarial certainty. It’s time to wake up.